The Hindu Conductor

‘Untouchable’ New York Subway Conductor Voices Her Anger In Touching Memoir

Sujatha Gidla, now a New York subway conductor, documented the down-trodden inhabitants of India known as the “untouchables” in her poignant memoir titled “Ants Among Elephants.” Born as an untouchable herself, Gidla was forced to undergo the aggressive Indian caste system and hence suffered discrimination until moving to America at the age of 26. This realistic portrait of India told from the lowermost of civilization was released on July 18th, 2017.


Book cover

Via Amazon


The Indian caste system, one of the oldest form of social stratification still existing today, is a rigid Hindu system that divides society into categories according to their work (karma) and dharma (duty). Its rules dictate ritualized restrictions and enforced erroneous and stereotypical ideologies among Indians.


Via the Boston Review

Students at a school for untouchables in southern India | Via Wikipedia Commons


Perched at the tip of the hierarchy are Brahmins, the scholars and priests who are considered to have been derived from the Brahma’s (Hindu God of Creation) head. Next down, the Kshatriyas are leaders and warriors that came from his arms. Then came the Vaishyas, who are landowners and merchants created from his thighs. The Shudras, such as farmers and servants, who are responsible for menial tasks are found at the bottom of the structure because they come from Brahma’s feet. Outside this hierarchy is where you’ll find Sujatha Gidla, one of the 300 million Dalits, also referred to as the untouchables.


From the Dalit community of Kazipet, a small town in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Gidla and other repressed individuals voiced their stories of oppression and yearned for tales to travel afar. Fortunately, Gidla escaped from cruelty and represented for others still suffering by chronicling her experiences with such compassion that it truly brings their plight into broad light.


In her detailed retelling, we learn the Dalits are constantly reminded of their ignoble births through society’s harsh categorization. She wrote:


“In Indian villages and towns, everyone knows everyone else. Each caste has its own special role and its own place to live. The brahmins (who perform priestly functions), the potters, the blacksmiths, the carpenters, the washer people, and so on—they each have their own separate place to live within the village. The untouchables, whose special role—whose hereditary duty—is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all. They must live outside the boundaries of the village proper. They are not allowed to enter temples. Not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. Not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. There are thousands of other such restrictions and indignities that vary from place to place. Every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle.”


Via the Star Tribune

Via The Star Tribune


Amongst the countless lives outcasted and cruelly treaded upon, Gidla is considered fortunate since many had committed suicide as a way to escape.


“For me, what was appealing was the idea of America, especially Bob Dylan’s music, the culture of protest, and the draw of joining a society where debates on rights and equality could be articulated,” she informed the BBC.


Sujatha and abraham

Sujatha and her brother Abraham | Via BBC


However, education amplified her voice, thus providing her with other options and other routes to take in life. While most other untouchables are illiterate, her family was educated by Canadian missionaries in the 1930s, thereby making it possible for Gidla to attend elite schools and move to America. Since 2009, she has been employed as the first Indian conductor at one of the busiest mass transit system in the world. 


Featured image courtesy of BBC